Rejecting & replacing PLCs

By a high school English teacher in the Midwest (2008)

“Professional Learning Communities”… had been presented to us about three years ago, based on the DuFour model:  you define your subject’s core concepts, teach them, collect data, compare the data, and basically, whoever is teaching it “best” shows everyone else how they do it.  This sounds great, except for its focus on numerical data and its misguided premise that every subject area can be broken down into core concepts which then have to be quantified.  What this means is that we’ll only identify concepts that can be quantified. For instance, when I teach research writing, I consider it absolutely essential that each student is tapping into a longstanding and deep interest.  I spend lots of time making sure this happens. How should I come up with a number for that?  It is easier to come up with a number for conventions, so if we follow this process through, we’ll end up de-emphasizing what I consider to be the most important part of writing and focusing on the less important but quantifiable measures.

I’m all for professional learning communities, but I thought they shouldn’t be focused on data but on more important discussions like…how do we make sure that learning is responsive to students’ needs, lives, and humanity?  How can we make sure that we’re always building and helping students build experiences, context, and meaning for any skills that they might need? And how can we make sure that we always approach our students with the understanding the learning is relational and that our policies, attitudes, classroom structures, and interactions need to reflect that understanding?  It is quite possible to collect data and reteach to pump up those scores (so that we’re seemingly successful) without addressing or engaging in any of those important questions, ultimately undermining true learning and engagement.

So, I got involved with the school improvement team, and we took over planning for PLCs and in-services. First, we talked about how the focus on data might get in the way of the most important things, and we began to ask those questions. The school improvement team decided to reject the DuFour model and forge our own. Instead of looking at core concepts, we looked at our own most significant connection with our subject area, and used that to think of our ideal experiences for students — how to engage them in thinking like mathematicians or historians or writers or scientists instead of how to drill them in the vocabulary of those subject areas or how to break down the skills. We wrote a school mission statement based on engagement, relational learning, and using the perspectives of each subject area to engage the pressing issues and problems of the world, workplace, and higher education. This year, we’re focusing in-services and small study groups on what relational learning, constructivism, and engagement mean and look like in our classrooms. We decided that any “data” we collect before we focus on that would be null anyway; the version of learning perpetuated by assessment programs goes against our understanding of people and learning, so we won’t be influenced by that.